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The Rise of the Online Synagogue

What it may mean for the future of American Judaism

Ron Wolfson
Steven Windmueller
April 06, 2022
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine

The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly affected Jewish religious practice. For two years, American synagogues and independent minyanim have struggled to cope with the ebb and flow of this public health crisis. The continuing CDC warnings for people to avoid “congregate settings”—the very definition of a congregation—have undeniably altered in-person attendance patterns in all sorts of synagogue offerings, especially worship services. On the other hand, a potential “silver lining” of the pandemic is the extraordinary number of people who have engaged in Jewish experiences online.

The rise of the “online synagogue” is a revolutionary development in the history of the American synagogue. It is occurring because of the confluence of two factors brought about by the pandemic: first, the extraordinary effort by synagogues to put all their worship, programming, and social activities online immediately in March 2020. Second, the increased accessibility of this content as people learned to navigate online technology, including those who may have initially struggled to log on to Zoom, Facebook Live, YouTube, Vimeo, synagogue websites, and other platforms.

Virtually overnight, nearly all synagogues—with the exception of most Orthodox congregations, which for halachic reasons would not livestream on Shabbat and holidays—went virtual by necessity. Suddenly, clergy living rooms and empty sanctuaries were transformed into television studios. While some had already installed livestreaming capability to broadcast worship and other programs, it rapidly became clear that congregations had to invest resources in upgrading their technology.

It is important to state upfront that we recognize the emergence of online synagogues may prove to be a two-edged sword. They are contributing greatly to the spiritual life of Jewish people in America and the larger world during the pandemic when public gatherings have been restricted. At the same time, some worry that large resource-rich online congregations may inadvertently affect local synagogues that form the very foundation of the Jewish community. Many congregations do not have the considerable funding and staff required to produce programming that attracts thousands of people.

But the response from members has been uniformly positive, with many synagogues reporting unexpected increased attendance at services, study sessions, and programming. Rabbi Roly Matalon, senior rabbi of B’nai Jeshurun, a large nondenominational congregation in New York City, summed up the nearly universal feedback from online participants:

People were very appreciative in our community … Many of them commented that, in spite of the pandemic, they had the best services. People were saying: “We could see you and hear you and your colleagues from really close. We could see the intention that you brought into the prayers. It was very, very intimate, sitting at home with just a few family members, no distractions. It was incredibly powerful.”

In the early days of the pandemic, attendees were mainly the members of congregations who tuned into their local offerings. Soon, however, a surprising development emerged that presents both a boon and a challenge to the American synagogue: People—members and others—suddenly had access to Jewish experiences beyond their geographic borders. Someone in Los Angeles could “attend” worship services in New York City and vice versa. A person in Denver could participate in a Torah study session in Chicago. As individuals became aware of the online programming of hundreds of congregations, the opportunity to “dip in” to these offerings captured the imagination and participation of a multitude of those people already connected to a congregation and many who were not.

Synagogues of all sizes reported large numbers of viewers, particularly during the High Holidays, with many surprised by logins from around the world. For example: Central Synagogue, a large Reform congregation in New York City, confirmed that on Rosh Hashanah 2021, total livestream viewership on all platforms was over 250,000, while Yom Kippur drew some 600,000-plus. Rabbi Nancy Tunick at Temple B’nai Israel in Florence, Alabama, a small unaffiliated congregation of 40 households, reported 100-200 people watch every livestreamed service, including some from as far away as England and Mexico who have become dues-paying congregants. At Congregation Shearith Israel, a midsize Conservative synagogue in Atlanta, Rabbi Ari Kaiman described recent in-person attendance at Shabbat morning services without a bar/bat mitzvah as 50-80, with up to another 100 on the livestream and archived platforms. Rabbi Josh Whinston, rabbi of Temple Beth Emeth, a midsize Reform congregation in Ann Arbor, Michigan, commented on an unexpected development:

The real surprise for me has been the longevity of a weekday minyan I started when the pandemic first hit. I have 25-35 with me on Zoom every weekday morning for about 30 minutes. It has become quite a community. One of the participants has talked about it “saving her life” during the height of COVID. I never thought I’d get the opportunity to lead a daily minyan after HUC!

Despite the array of challenges of the last two years, the clergy, staff, educators, leadership, and volunteers of all congregations have miraculously continued to create sacred communities of depth and meaning, working tirelessly to build relationships with and between congregants, relationships that are best initiated and sustained through in-person connection.

We are sociologists and researchers who study trends in American Jewish life, with a particular interest in synagogue transformation. As we witnessed the rise of the online synagogue, we interviewed rabbis on the leading edge of this phenomenon, seeking to discover how congregations—whatever their size—are engaging the people who have heard about, stumbled upon, or sought out their sacred community. We asked: Despite some of the technical and impersonal characteristics of online technology, is it possible to create meaningful relational engagement between these participants and the congregation so that they do, in fact, see themselves as belonging to the synagogue and welcomed as members?

The answer is “yes.”

Unlike churches, Jewish congregations broadcasting worship services is a relatively new phenomenon. While Orthodox synagogues and some Conservative congregations would not broadcast live for halachic reasons, with the proliferation of cable television channels in the early 2000s, the possibility opened up. In 2014, the Jewish Broadcasting Service began scheduling Friday night Shabbat services live from Central Synagogue in New York City. The prerecorded services of Long Island’s Orthodox Hampton Synagogue were added to the network in 2019.

The use of the internet to broadcast Jewish worship was nearly unheard of, except in Los Angeles where Rabbi Naomi Levy was invited to livestream the Kol Nidre services of Nashuva, an independent spiritual community, on the Jewish Television Network website in 2008. Levy told us the story:

Jay Sanderson, who built the Jewish Television Network, encouraged us to do this. I was shocked when in the very first year we attracted tens of thousands of screens. Within two years, we reached 70,000 people from all over the world on Kol Nidre; by 2014, more than 100,000. Since we had a chat function, we immediately realized that the services were, in fact, spiritually uplifting for these distant participants. I am convinced these are people who would never have walked into a synagogue, yet they were yearning to participate in a meaningful worship experience.

As platforms such as YouTube, Facebook Live, and congregational websites became ubiquitous, many congregations began installing livestreaming capability long before the pandemic set in.

Matalon noted:

In 2017, we did this because there were a number of members who couldn’t come in person. It was mostly for the benefit of our members—people who were sick, elderly, or homebound. Also for grandparents of bar/bat mitzvah children who could not come in person. Occasionally, we had people who traveled and wanted to be able to access BJ services.

Rabbi Paul Yedwab at Temple Israel, a large Reform congregation in West Bloomfield, Michigan, traced the evolution of its online High Holiday services:

Despite some of the technical and impersonal characteristics of online technology, is it possible to create meaningful relational engagement between these participants and the congregation so that they do, in fact, see themselves as belonging to the synagogue and welcomed as members?

In 2020, we produced high quality pre-recorded services that exploited the storytelling power of the small screen and was broadcast over our website, Facebook page, and YouTube channels.
Tens of thousands of people watched it during the holidays and afterward. Since we could have some people in attendance in 2021, we erected huge tents to offer a multi-access experience for those online and those in person. The outdoor location, while originally conceived as a regrettable medical necessity, proved to be magnificent both in-person and onscreen. The feedback was uniformly positive.

These synagogues are not alone; there are congregations of all types and sizes that have developed both the technology and program resources to appear on the national scene actively and broadly. Note that pre-pandemic, most congregations used the technology to serve their existing members, not to reach and engage new people. In the spring of 2020, when most had never heard of nor watched a livestream of synagogue programming, this revolution truly took hold.

We asked how these congregations are moving people from “viewers” to “members.” For Nashuva, the question is moot. Levy explained:

After Nashuva transitioned from JTN to livestreaming through Facebook and YouTube, its services have accumulated over 300,000 total views. Of these, 3,700 households from all around the world donate and see Nashuva as their spiritual home. We don’t have any membership or dues—any kinds of requirements toward membership, nor do we have any tickets or anything of the sort. People will ask: “How can I be a member of Nashuva?” and I always say: “You’re automatically a member. You are a member!” I just felt that this was very much in keeping with our mission.

For years, B’nai Jeshurun has adopted an out-of-town membership model known as BJ Friends. These are former congregants who have moved away from New York City and new people who have discovered the congregation online and are eager to participate in classes and worship experiences. During the pandemic, the congregation reported an overall 10% growth in its core membership, including 278 out-of-state households, representing 30 states and eight foreign countries. Out-of-town members are invited to join as full members and asked to make the same financial commitment as in-town members of B’nai Jeshurun, a sliding scale ranging from $525 to $6,500, depending on demographic and financial capacity, or the option to “set your own dues.”

Given the extended community built over the past 15 years with their cable broadcast and livestream, Central Synagogue recently launched “The Neighborhood,” an online community consisting of some 446 households with 604 individuals who applied to belong to this first experimental cohort. The Neighborhood is a way for the congregation to share its resources, build an onramp toward deeper Jewish engagement through, for example, small groups that foster community, and also encourage people to connect in person to their local synagogues. Fully two-thirds of the participants of The Neighborhood are not members of other congregations. Suggested fee for the online members is $540.

The development of an online community surprised Rabbi Sharon Brous of IKAR, a large Jewish Emergent Network congregation in Los Angeles:

As soon as COVID kicked in, I was saying to the board: “We need to prepare for a 50% decline in our membership.” As my economist friends would say, this is “the perfect free rider.” You don’t have to join; you could literally do everything for free. Instead, people were joining; our membership increased by a substantial amount. We established a category of connection called “IKAR from AFAR” members for out-of-towners and 150 signed up—people from Orange County, San Diego, Brazil, Japan, Australia, Tel Aviv. We had a person for High Holy Days this year from Saudi Arabia; we’re very curious who that is.

IKAR from AFAR members are asked to contribute from $590 to $2,400 annually, or to “indicate a tzedakah contribution meaningful to you.”

Prior to the pandemic, Park Avenue Synagogue, a large Conservative congregation in New York City, had established a category of membership for “nonresidents.” This enabled snowbirds and others to feel connected to the congregation while away from the city. With COVID, a new membership category was added called “The Tent,” with a minimal dues requirement of $180. The Tent members are entitled to access all online programming, but do not at this time receive pastoral counseling or other rabbinic services.

Temple Israel in West Bloomfield, Michigan, does not have a separate membership category for livestreamers, although a one-time voluntary contribution for any first-year membership is requested.

Valley Beth Shalom, a large Conservative synagogue in Encino, California, has taken a different tack, creating “VBS TV,” a collection of archived and livestreaming programming, much of which is free of charge on the synagogue website and various platforms. An “all access” pass to VBS TV is offered for $500 annually. An “associate membership” is available for $1,800.

All of the respondents with whom we spoke noted that whether folks formerly joined as in-person or online members, these congregations received a significant number of donations. Melissa Balaban, IKAR’s co-founder and executive director, commenting on these gifts, noted: “Tons and tons of people popped into our services. We had 500 donations from people we did not know in the first year. They were small donations, $18, $36, but it was great!”

At Central Synagogue, an astounding 5,000 individual donations came to the congregation during the pandemic from nonmembers, with an additional 1,400 from members.

We wondered why people would be motivated to move beyond “viewer” to “member.”

Even as the emerging online synagogues welcome people to join their communities, none of them wants to take current members of synagogues away from their local congregations.

Rabbi Nicole Auerbach, director of congregational engagement at Central Synagogue, believes it’s a sense of belonging:

When we were figuring out what The Neighborhood offering would be, we determined that the most important thing was that they feel like they belong to a community. Sure enough, when we talk to the people in The Neighborhood at our block parties or in their Facebook group, that’s what they’re grateful for. They have a sense that they belong to something bigger than themselves. It’s a basic human need to feel like you belong.

IKAR’s Brous commented:

I was hesitant at first to use the technology on Shabbes and chagim. But there was a moment on Pesach in 2020 when I realized that we had built this online community. It was the Yizkor memorial service. We taught people that this was a place where they could bring their grief. When I felt like I couldn’t be there for them, it just kind of broke my heart. So, that morning, I finally went into the (online) service, … and there were 200 people there to say the names of their loved ones. And I realized they needed their rabbis because we built a community where that’s what we do. We had to show up in these moments. So, I just started. I figured out a way to get onto Zoom without too much interaction with my computer. And I ended up just Zooming … for the rest of every Shabbos and holiday.

When we asked Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove of Park Avenue Synagogue whether online programming represented a “substitute” or “real” community? He responded:

It’s both. The best way to build a community with a network of relationships is in-person. When someone puts away a siddur and schmoozes with a neighbor, relationships are built. As Ron likes to say: “They will come for the programs but stay because of the people.” Zoom shiva is here to stay. There are so many people who now can participate online who would never be able to do so in person due to distance, or health concerns. They want to participate in community, to belong, in whatever way they can.

This is evidence of a remarkable development. Pre-pandemic, many Jewish observers considered online programming a “substitute” for “real” community. It appears that for the online participants, it is anything but a substitute. For them, it is very real. One comment from a Nashuva participant makes the point:

With no plans to attend services I was committed to work. But my soul called me home for this sacred time. As a gift to myself I was able to share this time with Nashuva online which so inspired and filled my heart. I feel very, very blessed and thank you for making this experience possible. I look forward to being present with all of you everywhere. Shalom, my new family!

Three of the rabbis we spoke with marveled about their experiences meeting online members in person. When Cosgrove recently traveled from New York to officiate at a wedding in Kansas City, the word got out and a group of Park Avenue Synagogue nonresidents asked to meet with him, connecting to the congregation and to each other. Brous reported IKAR from AFAR members showing up for Shabbat services in person. These encounters are filled with joy, meaning, and a deep sense of belonging to a sacred community. At Central Synagogue, Auerbach revealed that members of The Neighborhood are beginning to meet at in-person gatherings for the first time, delighting in finally meeting their “neighbors.”

Even as the emerging online synagogues welcome people to join their communities, none of them want to take current members of synagogues away from their local congregations. They all believe in and yearn for the return of in-person spiritual community, for they, too, serve their local communities. They also understand the limitations of online community; with some exceptions, most clergy are unable to provide pastoral care services and do not have the time to travel long distances to officiate at lifecycle celebrations. In fact, each of the rabbis we interviewed was particularly focused on helping nonmembers from outlying communities connect with local synagogues.

Cosgrove noted:

I do not want Park Avenue Synagogue to be the Walmart of Jewish living. There is a power in local synagogues, and we encourage people to maintain their membership with their local congregations. We also collaborate and share programming with small and large congregations. When we do well, “all ships will rise.”

Andrew Mandel, rabbinic intern at Central Synagogue who serves as staff for The Neighborhood, made this point clear to the congregation in a recent sermon:

We encourage our “Neighbors” to remain or become members of a local synagogue. Place-based Judaism is irreplaceable. And, we are delighted to be a second home for those seeking regular engagement with others globally who otherwise do not have access … Maybe the question is not whether in-person is superior to online, but rather, what conditions are necessary to cultivate community no matter where you are. Because we all know, even if you are here (in-person), you may be somewhere else entirely!

Undeniably, there is plenty of room on “all ships’’ for new spiritual travelers, with vast numbers of people who do not belong to or attend any congregation. The Pew Research Center’s “Portrait of American Jews” in 2013 revealed that only 39% of households reported at least one person who belonged to a synagogue. In all likelihood, this percentage has declined as many congregations are reporting membership attrition due to the pandemic. In the Pew follow-up survey in 2020, only “one-in-ten Jewish Americans (12%) say they attend a religious service at least weekly in a synagogue, temple or less formal setting such as a havurah or independent minyan.”

The opportunity for large numbers of not-yet-connected Jews, even not-yet Jews, to engage in an online spiritual community is a game-changer.

The opportunity for large numbers of not-yet-connected Jews, even not-yet Jews, to engage in an online spiritual community is a game-changer. Levy reflected:

Livestreaming is part of the fabric of Nashuva. We have online members who have been with us for sixteen years and who depend upon us for their spiritual nourishment, for their learning, their sense of community and their Jewish pride. We have so much to teach our own people and so much wisdom and healing to offer to the greater world. More and more non-Jews are praying with Nashuva and learning to love and respect Jews and the wisdom of our tradition.

Clearly, the investment in technology and staffing required to operate these online synagogues is significant. The sophisticated equipment required to produce high quality livestreaming programming is costly. Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom observed:

For the High Holy Days in 2020 and 2021, we transformed our sanctuary into a veritable television studio. We engaged a member of our congregation with experience as a television producer. Before the pandemic, we had a single camera with a wide-angle lens mounted on the ceiling in the back of the space. We knew that was not sufficient. It cost a whole lot to fund this; we knew it had to be added to the synagogue budget. And we clergy had to learn a new skill never taught to us in rabbinical school: how to become a television personality.

Other rabbis reported ramping up membership outreach, technology, communications personnel, even clergy time, all of which adds to synagogue expenses.

Will livestreaming religious programming continue as people return in-person as the pandemic subsides? Tish Warren argues that should not happen in her widely read and controversial op-ed in The New York Times, “Why Churches Should Drop Their Online Services:

Now I think it’s time to drop the virtual option. And I think this for the same reason I believed churches should go online back in March 2020: This is the way to love God and our neighbors. For all of us—even those who aren’t churchgoers—bodies, with all the risk, danger, limits, mortality and vulnerability that they bring, are part of our deepest humanity, not obstacles to be transcended through digitization. They are humble (and humbling) gifts to be embraced. Online church, while it was necessary for a season, diminishes worship and us as people. We seek to worship wholly—with heart, soul, mind and strength—and embodiment is an irreducible part of that wholeness.

Yet, one observer predicts that synagogues will never abandon livestreaming:

“There is no going back …”—a common refrain among leading rabbis. If there is a silver lining to the pandemic for synagogues, this is it. The response to online worship and programming has far exceeded expectations. Especially for those who are elderly or infirm and unable to physically come to the building, the enhanced access provided by livestreaming has been invaluable. Yes, there was a learning curve both on the part of providers and viewers—seniors needed help navigating their computers—but, on balance, the response to nearly every offering has been positive. Now that so many people have learned how to use the technology, some synagogue members will continue to expect the convenience of participating from the comfort and safety of home, even as synagogues can once again gather in “congregate settings.” A multi-access “hybrid” combination of in-person and livestreaming is likely to be common practice for the near and far future.

Rabbi Elaine Zecher at Temple Israel, a large Reform congregation in Boston, developed a new term for how their congregation is solving the challenge of combining in-person and livestreaming participants:

I have banned the term “virtual” from our culture. People are not “virtual,” they are real. We call our approach: “mixed-presence, whether onsite or online.” We have two large walls on the sides of our sanctuary upon which we project the faces of our online participants, so those onsite can see them and they can see us. Everyone feels equally engaged, equally present. One does not cancel the other in continuing to use online as an important resource to reach and connect with the larger Jewish community.

There is vigorous debate in many congregations about whether to go “all-in” on this trend, while still others expect a robust return to in-person attendance. Questions abound: Will “Zoom fatigue” lead to an abandonment of online programming? How can people regain the “muscle memory” of coming to shul? Can the congregation reengage those who disengaged and dropped their membership during the pandemic? What strategies of relational engagement can be used to deepen relationships between the congregation and individuals and between the members themselves in congregations of any size? These are important questions for every congregation to ask and answer.

The COVID-19 pandemic supercharged the rise of the online synagogue. Nearly every congregation in America was forced online for some or all of their programming. The High Holidays of 2020 served as the primary launch pad for the emergence of a number of synagogues reaching hundreds of thousands of people across America and around the globe. These congregations are experimenting with ways to best connect with and personalize their engagement with online viewers, offering them paths to membership and a sense of belonging. While it remains to be seen how conditions change as the pandemic subsides, the opportunity to engage large numbers of people in Jewish experiences through participation in online spiritual communities is a revolutionary development in American Judaism.

Dr. Ron Wolfson is the Fingerhut Professor of Education at American Jewish University and president of the Kripke Institute. He is the co-author of the Relational Judaism Handbook and a consultant and lecturer on building sacred communities in synagogues, schools, community centers, and camps around the world. His newest book is Creating Sacred Communities: Leading Practitioners Share Lessons Learned (with Rabbi Brett Kopin).

Dr. Steven Windmueller currently serves as the Interim Director of HUC’s Zelikow School and is Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Studies at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of HUC-JIR. His writings can be found on his website.